NEW YORK — Serena Williams let lead after lead slip away, so she figured it was her own fault when yet another match stretched to a third set and she started getting cramps in her weary legs on the way to a surprising loss at the Western & Southern Open.
“I don’t think that helps mentally, when you know the match is over and you won the match, and now your legs were already tried and now they’re even more tired,” Williams said. “I put myself in a bad situation. It’s like dating a guy that you know sucks.”
Early on, Williams got flustered when she got called for taking too much time between points. Later, she flung away her racket after letting the second set get away. In the end, she finished rather meekly in a 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-1 upset against Maria Sakkari on Tuesday night.
This was Williams’ fifth match since professional tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic after a hiatus of nearly six months — and all five have gone three sets. She is 3-2 in that stretch.
The result against No. 13 seed Sakkari was hardly promising for Williams as the US Open’s start approaches next week.
“It’s hard to play the way I’ve been playing and to stay positive. And to play nine hours in a week is too much. I don’t usually play like that,” Williams said. “I literally should have won that match. There was no excuse. It was tough, but I had so many opportunities to win. I have to figure that one out — how to start winning those matches again.”
The Western & Southern Open is usually held in Ohio but was moved to the US Open’s site in Flushing Meadows this year to make for a two-event, no-spectator “bubble” during the pandemic.
Williams was seemingly in control early, serving for the first set at 5-3, 30-0, when things began to unravel. She missed two backhands in a row, then put a forehand into the net to set up a break point, and walked over to the stand holding her towel at the back of the court (the ball people normally handle towels for players, but not during COVID-19).
That’s when chair umpire Aurelie Tourte called a time violation. On the following point, Williams sailed a forehand long to get broken.
At the ensuing changeover, the 23-time Grand Slam champion argued with Tourte, saying: “I mean, I’m getting my own towels. That’s not fair. You should tell me on the sidelines next time if I need to play faster. Believe me, I will. … You didn’t even give me a warning.”
While Williams eventually did grab that set, she again frittered away a 5-3 lead in the second, plus a 4-1 edge in the tiebreaker. When she sat after the second set, the 38-year-old American tossed her racket over her shoulder the way an office worker might flip a crumpled piece of paper toward a trash can.
Williams came out flat in the third set, as if she’d rather be anywhere else. She double-faulted four times in the second game, including on Sakkari’s eighth break chance, to make it 2-0 and that was pretty much that.
Women’s quarterfinal matchups set earlier in the day were two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka against Anett Kontaveit, former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka against Ons Jabeur, and 83rd-ranked American qualifier Jessica Pegula against No. 14 Elise Mertens.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.